J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2020

“Liberated upon each of them giving bail”

Back on 27 March, I described how a Suffolk County grand jury indicted four civilians for murder in the Boston Massacre.

As acting governor Thomas Hutchinson wrote, those four men had been “committed to close prison, where they lay about a fortnight,” because of the testimony of Charles Bourgate.

That “French boy” claimed that his master, Edward Manwaring, had fired a gun out of the Customs House window. The other three men were charged with being part of the fatal conspiracy simply because they testified in support of Manwaring’s denial.

Ordinarily, there was no bail for people charged with murder. But some Superior Court judges thought the evidence against those men was weak enough to make an exception.

According to an anonymous correspondent keeping track of events in Boston for the Customs service, the town committee gathering evidence about the Massacre “threw every obstacle in the way in order to prevent this affair coming to a hearing by informing the Court that they daily expected new Witnesses from the Country.”

Eventually the court scheduled a bail hearing on Saturday, 7 Apr 1770—250 years ago today. According to the diary of acting Chief Justice Benjamin Lynde, it took “all forenoon.” The anonymous report described the event this way:
The Witnesses brot. against the Custom house People Manwarings french boy and one [Samuel] Drown, the former had sworn to so many falsities that the Court paid no regard to his evidence—the latter was proven in Court to be a fool, unable to utter one coherent sentence. . . .

Upwards of 40 Creditable people were summoned by Manwaring to disprove Guns being fired out of the Custom house but only the family of Mr. [Benjamin] Davis who lives directly opposite was examined—they all declared they had their eye upon the Custom house during the whole affair, and that they saw no Guns fired nor believ’d any were fired. their Evidences were so very clear that the Court thought it unnecessary to examine any other of his exculpatory Witnesses.
Lynde was nonetheless still inclined not to grant bail. Judge Peter Oliver (shown above), brother of province secretary Andrew Oliver and related by marriage to Hutchinson, already believed there was “little cause of Confinement.” Judge John Cushing (1695-1778) cast the deciding vote.

The court let the four men out of jail pending trial if they paid bail of £400 each. As comparison, in 1770 Paul Revere paid £213 for an entire house in the North End. With the help of sixteen sureties, the defendants came up with the necessary money. They still had to go on trial, but until then they were free.

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